Former Army Specialist Casey Elder is trapped in a story without a conclusion. It began in 2004, the moment an IED struck her Humvee in Baghdad, slamming her hard enough to dislocate her shoulder and cause permanent joint and nerve damage.
After returning home, Casey began suffering from balance problems, short-term memory loss, and severe migraines. After a series of misdiagnoses, her local VA was finally able to pinpoint the source of her injuries: Casey had a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). She responded by filing a disability claim with the VA in January 2009, assuming that a diagnosis from a VA hospital would qualify her to receive compensation. But that assumption proved to be painfully wrong.
After waiting eight months, Casey was shocked to learn that her claim was rejected. Her only recourse was to appeal the VA's decision, an arduous, drawn-out process. Today, more than a year after she started this journey, Casey still waits for word on whether or not she will receive her hard-earned benefits.
Unfortunately, stories like Casey's could fill a stack of books at your local library. She is just one of the nearly 425,000 members of the nation's least envious club: injured veterans waiting for their disability benefits. And no, members of this club don't have their own jackets or 10% off at Walmart. They are stuck waiting. And waiting.
Why the backlog? Like all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans applying for disability benefits, Casey is essentially using the same paper-based system that Vietnam veterans used more than three decades ago. The current disability process was created before most Iraq and Afghanistan vets were even born. In the last thirty years, we've moved from DOS to Windows 7, from rotary phones to iPhones, from Beta-Max to Blu-Ray--but the VA is still operating with paper clips and printer paper. Now we know who is keeping Dunder Mifflin in business.
As detailed in our newest report,"Red Tape: Veterans Fight New Battles for Care and Benefits," the claims process is a picture of government inefficiency and bureaucracy at its worst.
Veterans wait on average 6 months to hear back from the VA on the status of their claim, with some forced to wait more than a year. The entire claims backlog borders on nearly one million, and because of an emphasis on processing quantity over quality, 17 percent of all claims are inaccurate. Veterans who contest a wrong decision face an appeals process that takes, on average, more than two years. And just last week, we heard from VA Secretary Shinseki that wait time is likely to rise until 2013. You know a situation is out of control when you have to use italics that often in a single paragraph.
But somebody is doing something about it. Next week, dozens of veterans like Casey and Sara Skinner (see the video below) will take this fight to our nation's Capitol as part of IAVA's annual Storm the Hill campaign. They will tell Congress and the White House that the VA must reform its disability system; that they refuse to allow the next generation of warriors to be left behind.
They are there to propose a few key fixes that will do more than just throw people or money at the problem: digitizing records and moving the claims process into the 21st century, holding processors accountable for the accuracy of their work, and removing unnecessary steps in the process. A new, innovative, cost-effective system will make the federal government more efficient, and save taxpayers' money at a critical time.
We need the VA to try a business approach that works for countless companies that you interact with every day. It's called customer service. If Zappos, USAA and Craigslist can do it, so can the VA. But these vets aren't ordering shoes or finding concert tickets, they are trying to get their rightly earned benefits.
And to get this done, we need bold leadership. Overhauling a system that dates back to the Nixon Administration won't happen without a fight, and it won't happen without a united coalition. Veterans of all generations and key leaders from both sides of the aisle will be taking it on, but we need all Americans to help. It doesn't matter who you voted for, how you feel about the war, or what party you are from, you can support our veterans fighting for disability reform.
Wounded warriors returning from battle shouldn't have to fight red tape once they get home. Working together, we can finally close the chapter on the outdated VA disability claims process that has plagued veterans for generations. We can show wounded warriors, like Casey Elder, that "we've got their back." Show Congress that you stand with our veterans now at www.StormTheHill.org. And tell them that our veterans have waited for long enough.
Crossposted at www.IAVA.org.
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